This world is divided many different ways on any given day, but one of the axes around which it splits turns forty this year.
That axis is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it divides people as much today as it did four decades ago on its initial release. It divides them into – if you’ll pardon the parlance of audience partici…pation – Virgins and Sluts. The Sluts are easy to spot – they’re the ones who go to every screening they can, who cosplay characters from the movie, jump up at appointed times and dance in the aisles or on stages, and who come equipped to the movie with a whole range of props, to interact with the on-screen action in real time.
The Virgins…well, the Virgins are those who either haven’t seen the movie yet, or have seen it, and insist, as a friend of mine did this week, that ‘it’s just a bad movie. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.’
Let’s see what the fuss is about, shall we?
Firstly, a note of honesty – yes, if you just sit home alone and watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on your TV, it’s probably a bit of a lame experience. Yes, it’s still got some great actors in it – Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Charles Gray, Tim Curry, Patricia Quinn…erm…Christopher Biggins… and yes it’s a love letter to the great sci-fi B-movies from the 30s-70s, but the plot is mayhem, the narratorial intrusion is probably the antithesis of good storyteling, the pace is slack, the conclusion insane, and if you’re not particularly broad-minded, there’s every chance that what was intended as a tribute-cum-parody of those great movies might insult your sensibilities with its gender-ambiguity, its transvestitism, and its camp-as-Christmas shenanigans. Seen alone, there’s every chance you’ll miss the point of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and remain a Virgin for the rest of your life.
There’s a cure for that.
Shared Memories Like most cures for virginity, the clue is in the company you keep.
First of all, don’t see Rocky Horror on your own. See it with friends. Will that make the movie better? Doesn’t it make most things better?
Apart from anything else, see it in company and whatever your reaction to it is, it’ll be a reaction shared, and that’s the beginning of a memory. And if you want to know what the fuss is about when it comes to Rocky Horror, that’s the essence of the answer – shared memories of the experience, whether those memories are of running round collecting all your props and sequinning your Columbia cosplay or trying to find a basque at short notice, or whether they’re just of watching all the people do their thing, and trying to catch up with the audience participation. Even if you watch it at home with someone else, you can swap questioning eye-rolls about what the point of that line was, and suddenly you’re building a memory of that moment.
Vive La Revolution Secondly, part of the point of what’s already in the script of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is revolution. It slams the cultural clichés of all those marvelous B-movies right into the culture of permissiveness and what were in the 70s thought of as ‘alternative sexualities’ – yes, really, still. There was something shocking about a sweet, white-bread all-American couple running into a proud alien transvestite omnisexual and seeing them succumb to his way of life by expanding their own. But by making up your own interactions – whether they’re the time-honoured audience participations or not – you can engage with a meta-film experience (yes, really, I just said that), stepping outside the boundaries of dialogue. Everyone likes a good shout at the TV now and again, but you’re rarely allowed to do it in a movie theatre. Both the structure and the history of Rocky Horror allows you to do that – you get to heckle a movie screen, in an atmosphere where it’s perfectly acceptable and where – it’s unlikely after forty years, but you never know – your interjection might even make people laugh if they’ve never heard it before, might even begin to be a part of a local ‘accepted’ call-back, and from there, make it into the worldwide anti-script that is the Rocky Horror audience participation ritual.
Permission To Be Silly, Freedom To Be Yourself More than anything else though, Rocky Horror gives a whole group of grown-ups who should know better, but frankly don’t, permission to be incredibly silly in a supportive group environment. Given that the movie first came out in 1975, these are the people, more than any other, who invented live cosplay at screenings, so before you sneer, kindly straighten your bow-tie and doff your fez in their direction. Rocky Horror is a movie, yes, but as Roger Ebert said of it when he initially reviewed it, it’s actually more of an ongoing cultural tradition. It fed into spirits like Mardi Gras and Pride; the Sluts who dressed as Rocky Horror characters were likely to support people’s sexualities and lifestyles in the real world once they’d grown to love Tim Curry’s strutting self-proclaiming Sweet Transvestite, who was as keen to make himself a man for frankly anal funfests as he was to deflower the sweetest American virgin in Sarandon’s Janet. While the message of the movie may well be that self-indulgent hedonism can go too far – after all, there’s murder and cannibalism later on, and the eventual twist is that Frankie’s gone too far and must be punished – from the 70s right through to the modern day, Rocky Horror has been providing geeks and Sluts with not only shared experiences, but a shared environment to be incredibly silly in public, and to be themselves, with whatever kind of strut they choose, empowered by the characters acting out the script on screen, and loved unconditionally by the audience subverting the bejesus out of it in movie theatres.
Don’t Dream It, Be It Ultimately, no-one’s going to convince you to ‘stop worrying and love Rocky Horror.’ Certainly, you shouldn’t do it just cos all the cool kids do. But don’t watch it alone and expect to get the best out of it. That’s like watching Doctor Who with the sound off and no subtitles – sure, you’ll still see what’s on the screen and be able to get the gist (Rocky Horror could never be accused of any crime so monstrous as subtlety when it comes to its core themes), but don’t just watch it – be a part of it if you ever want to experience what the fuss is all about. Go along to a screening. Do some research first if you want, though that’s not necessary – most Rocky Horror fans are beautifully gentle with Virgins. Give yourself over to absolute pleasure, absolute silliness, absolute freedom, and see if there’s not an extra sweetness in your strut on the way back home.
The odd couple is a great recipe for geek-heaven. Arguably it’s the relationship between the Doctor and all his companions, it’s the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and while there were frequently more of them than the classic two, it was the relationship that underpinned The Avengers. It also worked in harder core cop shows like The Persuaders, The Sweeney, the Professionals, and the all-time classic, Starsky and that singer-guy.
But if you were a British teen in the mid-80s, there was only one odd couple cop show you cared about – and that was Dempsey and Makepeace.
Dempsey and Makepeace had everything – kicking 80s theme tune, London backdrop in the mid-80s, when the city was where every kid who wasn’t there wanted to be, cool New York guy Dempsey, played by easy on the damned eye Michael Brandon, ice hot posh girl Harriet Makepeace, known gloriously as Harry and played by Glynis Barber (then riding high on the back of her role as Soolin in Blake’s 7 and eponymous hero Jane in a show that dabbled with combining live action and early CGI), preposterous plots with just enough taking it seriously from the two leads to convince you they were realistic, and a love story that gave no quarter and didn’t stop either of the central characters from being able to kick your ass if you got out of line. It was like smashing Starsky and Hutch’s equality of partnership together with the coolness of the Avengers’ women like Kathy Gale or Emma Peel, and for the first time, being in a decade where that equality of lead status was acceptable without being played for cute.
While set in contemporary London, and somewhat fetishizing the city as the place where all things were possible, it still, in its day, carried a note of fantasy, showing British police carrying guns, which elevated it from standard British police fare to special unit status, immediately putting it in the category of shows like The Persuaders and The Avengers. But there was far less whimsicality in Dempsey and Makepeace’s special unit, SI 10, than was allowed in those other shows – they carried guns and got involved in demented situations, but they were always, by the standards of their predecessors, comparatively believable and played for real, more likely to deal with drug smugglers and financial swindles than megalomaniacs intent on taking over the world.
The dialogue too was a cut above some of those other Brit fantasy shows, the writers basing their work more in character than cheesy lines and plot developments – that was what made Dempsey and Makepeace quite so hard to quantify: it sat between the hard-as-nails British cop shows The Sweeney and The Professionals and those more fantastical shows, The Avengers and The Persuaders. But always, if given a choice, it fell on the hard-as-nails side of the coin.
What Dempsey and Makepeace had above all the shows of its ilk that came before (and arguably after it) though was chemistry. That was because there had never been an odd couple cop show where the cops were destined to fall in love – the very same year in the US, Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd were beginning the same journey in Moonlighting, but with more comedy and a heaping helping of cheese which was denied the comparatively gritty British offering. The chemistry factor was brand new in the arena, almost by necessity – there was never any special chemistry in The Avengers, and it would have been unthinkable for broadcast in the 70s had the Starsky and Hutch bromance become anything more, but this was the 80s, and Harry Makepeace could more than hold her own with the boys (in fact, in the very first episode, she entirely flummoxes Dempsey), so it was suddenly the right time for an odd couple cop show that could become an odd couple romance, while still delivering all the villain-kicking and villain-shooting action a nation of crime-geeks demanded and giving 80s girls a role model, albeit one with a silver spoon in her mouth.
Unlike the Moonlighting vibe, Dempsey and Makepeace’s romance was played in a typically British fashion – understated, quite frustrated and never entirely resolved, though the final season saw them getting closer and closer to some resolution of their feelings. But in many ways, the show delivered an archetype for crime shows and crime novels for the next thirty years and counting, where police business and personal emotions are mixed and twisted, duty and passion fighting for control in a situation made impossible by convention and rules, but impossible to ignore by the dictates of the heart. The chemistry at the heart of the show eventually developed into a real-life romance between Brandon and Johns, and on into a marriage which continues to this day.
The legacy of Dempsey and Makepeace is a peculiar one – from the dawn of the 80s, British drama had begun to show working policewomen as heroes – in 1980, the BBC launched Juliet Bravo with Stephanie Turner as Inspector Jean Darblay, who was followed in the same show by Anna Carteret as Inspector Kate Longton, both fighting a combination of crime and the residue of 70s male chauvinism. The show ran until 1985, and while important in its own right, there was a degree of rural charm to the whole thing, set as it was in Lancashire in the north of England. During the same period, ITV, the UK’s commercial channel, was running The Gentle Touch, a much edgier, London-set show, with Jill Gascoine making UK TV history as the first woman to headline a British police drama, as Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes. Both shows had ended the first wave of female cop shows in the UK by 1985 (while in the US, Cagney and Lacey was hitting its stride as a more straightforward ‘female Starsky and Hutch’ take on the situation). Dempsey and Makepeace picked up one half of the baton, with Jill Gascoine continuing to run with the other half in a follow-up show called C.A.T.S Eyes, launched the same year. C.A.T.S Eyes took the idea of female empowerment forward in a mostly female environment (the show was set in a secret unit, fronted by an all-female detective agency, and actually had more in common with Charlie’s Angels than The Gentle Touch). Dempsey and Makepeace took the mantle of ‘woman kicking ass in a world that men still think is their own’ and turned it into something intensely watchable, establishing Makepeace as being able to more than handle herself, without in any real way diminishing Dempsey’s skills or his ability to likewise look after himself. If the first half of the decade had been about policewomen fighting to be taken seriously in British society and culture, Dempsey and Makepeace was an olive branch that said ‘We’ll still kick your ass if we need to. But if we don’t need to, we can work with you.’ It set the seal on more equal partnerships between men and women in police procedurals for at least three decades to come, and rewrote a formula which is still paying writers dividends today.